Living in the Shadow of a Toxic Mess | NBC Southern California

Living in the Shadow of a Toxic Mess

Model homes are now open next to a former nuclear and rocket test site



    Families are flocking to get a look at brand new model homes in a beautiful canyon west of Los Angeles. What some buyers might not realize is that the development, called Arroyo Vista at the Woodlands, is right next to one of the most contaminated sites in California -- the former Santa Susana Field Lab. Joel Grover reports for the NBC4 News at 11 on Monday, Feb. 29, 2016. (Published Tuesday, March 1, 2016)

    Families are flocking to get a look at brand new model homes in a beautiful canyon west of Los Angeles. What some buyers might not realize is that the development, called Arroyo Vista at the Woodlands, is right next to one of the most contaminated sites in California -- the former Santa Susana Field Lab.

    Previous Reports: LA's Nuclear Secret

    State regulators and the lead developer for the project, KB Home, say the land is "safe for residential development." But the NBC4 I-Team found evidence, and experts, who raise questions about whether families should be living so close to the former nuclear and rocket test site.

    "I'm not comfortable with homes being built there," says Robert Alvarez, who studied the Santa Susana Field Lab as a senior advisor to the U.S. Secretary of Energy in the 90s.

    The Woodlands, located in Runkle Canyon in Simi Valley, will eventually include more than 450 homes, right next to Santa Susana. As the NBC4 I-Team has documented in its LA's Nuclear Secret series, nuclear accidents and years of rocket tests have left the Field Lab stained with radioactive and toxic chemical waste. Studies have shown that some of that waste has migrated to nearby neighborhoods.

    And, a 2007 federally funded study found rates of certain cancers are 60 percent higher in neighborhoods within two miles of the Field Lab, though it didn't identify the cause of those illnesses.

    "Initially I thought I was going to die," says 24 year old Dante Ferrari, who battled lymphoma at 21.

    Ferrari grew up three houses from the Runkle Canyon property.

    "We always hiked up there," Ferrari told NBC4. "We were always just playing in the dirt, like kids do," he added.

    There have been at least seven different studies done on the dirt at Runkle Canyon, around where homes are being built. Soil tests done in 2007 and 2010--some paid for by the developer, some done by the state, say the potential impact of radiation found is "less than significant," according to an Environmental Impact Report by the City of Simi Valley.

    But the NBC4 I-Team obtained five earlier studies done on Runkle Canyon starting in 1998, paid for by a different developer. The consultant's conclusions in those earlier reports varied, from saying "there might have been some impact of radionuclides (radiation) to the site" to "the site was non-contaminated."

    But four experts, asked by the I-Team to take a closer look at actual data, say the tests all found elevated levels of Strontium-90, a potentially cancer causing radioactive material, in numerous samples of Runkle Canyon soil.

    "You're running the risk of putting people in harm's way" by building homes there, said Peter Strauss after looking at summaries of the test data for the I-Team. Strauss is an environmental consultant who has received EPA funding to examine toxic sites.

    One study, done by Foster Wheeler Environmental consultants, took 58 soil samples from different areas in Runkle Canyon. All 58 samples showed elevated levels of radiation, between two and 165 times higher than what the United States EPA says is normal for that area.

    "You can't just throw out those samples and pick the lowest ones," said former Energy Department advisor Robert Alvarez, who also looked at the data.

    But the city of Simi Valley approved the Woodlands project, based mainly on the later tests from 2007 and 2010.

    "The site is safe for development," says Simi Valley city spokesperson Samantha Argabrite.

    When asked by the I-Team to explain the earlier tests which found elevated levels of radiation at Runkle Canyon, Argabite responded, "I can't speak to how there were earlier levels and then later that was not what was found."

    She added that the city gave approval in large part because the California Department of Toxic Substances Control concluded that radiation found at Runkle Canyon "did not pose a significant health risk." "We deferred to the experts, the DTSC," Argabrite said.

    But the I-Team found the DTSC has been wrong before, when green lighting housing developments. In 2014, it gave approval to development on the site of a former sewage plant in Riverside called Ag Park, after saying the site was "not contaminated with toxic PCBs."

    Construction began shortly after.

    But later tests overseen by the U.S. EPA found elevated levels of PCBs, and construction was halted, because the DTSC had been wrong.

    "What they (the DTSC) declared to be clean, was not clean," says community advocate Penny Newman, who helped get construction on the toxic land halted. "It alarms me because this is an agency that is supposed to protect the public, not the developer."

    The developer of the Woodlands project in Simi Valley, KB Home, said in a statement to NBC4, "Under no circumstances would we have ever built on land if it posed potential health issues...before starting construction we followed rigorous testing protocols and received approval from the DTSC."

    But the experts who looked at the Runkle Canyon soil tests for the I-Team disagree, and say more testing should be done before home construction continues.

    "I don't think there's enough evidence to convince me that it's safe enough to live there," says former Energy Department Advisor Alvarez.

    "They shouldn't build houses with so many unanswered questions. Err on the side of caution," says former US EPA Senior Science Advisor and radiation specialist Gregg Dempsey.

    Dempsey examined Runkle Canyon soil tests when he oversaw an EPA radiation survey of the Santa Susana Field Lab.
    "I would have not have developed the property. They (the developer) never settled the risk," Dempsey told the I-Team.

    The DTSC said it wasn't able to verify the accuracy of the earlier tests done that found elevated levels of radiation. A statement by the DTSC says the "results might have been an artifact of sampling methodology, laboratory analysis or lack of string quality assurance and quality control measures."

    But the experts interviewed by the I-Team believe the earlier are sound, having been done using methods approved by the US EPA.

    In a disclosure to buyers at the Woodlands, KB Home suggests they "conduct their own review of potential health risks" and says it will provide them with records and documents upon request.

    Neighbors who live near Runkle Canyon, like Dante Ferrari who battled lymphoma, thinks buyers should be aware of all the tests done on the land.

    "It definitely seems like there's a lot more cancers in our neighborhood," Ferrari told NBC4. "I don't want somebody to go through what I went through," he added.

    Full statement from Runkle Canyon LLC: "Under no circumstances would we have ever built on this land if it posed potential health issues for our homeowners and neighbors. That is why, before starting construction at Runkle Canyon, we followed rigorous testing protocols and received approval from the California DTSC. Furthermore, testing  by the U.S. EPA has shown that Runkle Canyon soil is no different than soil tested at other areas throughout Greater Los Angeles. It is irresponsible for KNBC to frighten viewers by relying on old research using outdated methodologies while ignoring verifiable scientific findings which show that Runkle Canyon is safe for residential development."